Written by Ella White
We have probably all seen guide dogs out in cities, airports, and on public transport. But not everyone truly understands the role of a guide dog, how they’re trained, and what they do to support their owners depending on their unique set of needs.
In this article we will explain what a guide dog does, how they’re trained, and how they’re paired with their handlers and owners.
A guide dog, often known as a seeing-eye dog, is an assistance animal trained to guide blind or visually-impaired people. They are meticulously trained and carefully paired with the perfect owner for them. When a person applies for a guide dog, they aren’t just matched with the latest dog to be trained. The person’s living arrangements, lifestyle, activity level, and how well they bond with the dog are all taken into consideration before a pairing is made.
The owner will also work with the professional trainer who handled the dog during its training so they understand the specific needs and commands they will be working with day-to-day, before they go it alone together. But when they eventually do, an assistance dog can give their owners a great sense of independence, and company. Unlike mobility canes, a loyal dog by your side makes navigating your route feel far less daunting.
Guide dog training usually begins when a dog is very young, and can continue throughout their lives. Some of the key training steps include:
Some guide dogs are sent to trainers at the age of eight weeks, so they can be taught to socialize and obey orders from a very young age. Then, by the time they’re 12-18 months old they should be ready to begin formal training with assistance dog instructors. This can last months, or even longer, until they’re ready to be paired with a handler.
Some owners are also able to train guide dogs themselves, although usually this is done at special schools or through facilities at non-profit organizations. When they’re paired with their eventual owner, they will undergo even more specific training in their new home.
The new owner themselves will also need to be ‘trained’ in how to give commands, provide the praise and encouragement a dog needs as a response to its work, and to let the dog know which way it should be going.
The most important factors when choosing the breed of an assistance dog are intelligence, temperament, and health. To become a successful guide dog, the breed needs to be known for its high level of intelligence, otherwise it is unlikely to do well during training. Dogs are matched with their owners largely based on their personalities, so their temperament needs to be calm – this is also essential when the dog is working outside.
German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labradors are the most popular breeds of dog used as guide dogs as they fit all of the essential criteria. However for owners with allergies, poodles and labradoodles are sometimes used.
Most commonly, guide dogs are paired with people who are legally blind. This means that they might have some vision but would still benefit from the help of an assistance dog. However, only around 5% of people who would qualify for a guide dog actually use them.
Not everyone wants a dog and some prefer to use a cane or human assistance if they have access to it. While others lead lifestyles that don’t fit with the needs of a guide dog, which still requires the same level of care as any pet at home.
A guide dog doesn’t actually know ‘where’ their owner wants to go. Rather, the owner gives their dog directional cues and it’s the dog’s job to help them avoid obstacles and unsafe situations. So when you see a guide dog stop at a crossing it’s not because they can read the traffic signals. It’s because they recognize the traffic itself as an obstacle to be avoided – and will intelligently disobey their owners' command to walk until it is safe.
The human owner’s ability to hear what is around them also influences whether or not a dog will lead them to keep walking or halt. So if the owner can hear there is no traffic but the dog can see there’s a bike or other obstacle coming up, they will prevent their owner from clashing with the perceived hazard. It takes a lot of trust on the owner’s part.
If a guide dog is wearing a harness, this is a signal that they’re working and should not be distracted under any circumstances. It can be compelling to pet a cute dog while it’s at work, but doing this can put their owner in danger. While working, a guide dog should always be focused on guiding their owner.
You can always ask the owner if it’s okay to pet their dog. But if they say no, they’re not being mean and withholding petting time. They just know that it’s an unsafe time for their assistance dog to be distracted from the job in hand.
A guide dog’s working life rarely spans longer than eight years. However throughout their time as a guide dog, their original trainers work closely with them, observing how they’re doing and whether it’s time for them to retire.
Assistance dogs and their owners form a very special bond throughout their time together, so organizations will do what they can to help them stay together once the dog is no longer able to work.
Owners need to meet specific welfare needs for the dog. But it could be the case that they need to be matched with a new, young guide dog to help them going forward. This can hinder an owner’s ability to properly care for their older, retired dog. In this situation, there are organizations that work to rehome retired guide dogs as pets with new owners.
Are you training a dog? Whether you’re a professional or a new pup owner, the key to getting the job done is treats. Front of the Pack’s freeze-dried treats are packed with 100% raw animal protein. So you can keep rewarding your dog as they learn, without worrying about their calorie intake.